Palm oil is part of our everyday lives. In 2020, the U.S. imported more than three billion pounds of palm oil, up from about two billion pounds in 2010, sourced primarily from Malaysia, Indonesia and Colombia.
Palm oil is a common ingredient in about half of our packaged foods, including frozen meals and ice cream. It gives baked goods their soft texture and chocolate bars their familiar snap. Food companies like it because it’s easy to work with, it’s cost-effective, it’s naturally trans fat free and it’s non-GMO. It can even be found in dog food/snacks because it’s a healthy, natural preservative and a good nutrient source.
Palm oil is also found in personal care products. Companies use palm oil because it makes lipstick easier to apply and helps the color stay longer. It makes hair shinier and smooths skin.
But how much do you know about this versatile ingredient? Is it healthy for you? Is it good for the planet?
What is palm oil?
Tropical oil palm trees grow near the equator and produce bountiful quantities of oil-rich fruit for about 25 years.
Workers pick the fruit, which grows in bunches weighing up to 80 pounds, and extract the oil. Palm oil is steamed then pressed from the palm’s fleshy fruit, similar to how olive oil is produced.
The yields are incredible. A one-acre oil palm plantation produces 11 times more oil than a soybean field, 10 times more than sunflower and 7 times more than canola.
But some people worry about consuming palm oil
Some people believe that palm oil isn’t heart-healthy because it contains 50% saturated fat. That thinking is outdated. In the body, research has shown that palm oil and olive oil have basically the same effect on blood cholesterol levels.
A 12-month study published in Scientific Reports, found that a high-carb diet is more likely to raise heart disease risk factors; whereas a high-fat diet had no significant impact. The overwhelming majority of study participants (484 or 83.0%) consumed meals prepared with palm oil/palm olein.
Those findings are supported by a vast amount of ongoing research across the globe, including this meta-analysis of more than 70 studies by the University of Cambridge, showing that total fat consumption has little-to-no impact on heart health.
Is palm oil filled with empty calories?
Some foods and ingredients may be calorie rich but nutrient poor. That’s not the case with palm oil. More than 80 studies confirm palm fruit oil’s healthy benefits. These benefits include:
- Just one tablespoon of red palm oil contains 240 percent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A and 25 percent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin E. It also has ample supplies of vitamins D, E and K.
- The fatty acids in palm oil are raw materials for building the membranes of every cell in your body, including your bones, nerves and brain.
- Palm oil plays a role in weight loss. Fats aren’t the enemy when you’re trying to lose weight. We need fats to feel good, to absorb essential nutrients and for satiety. It’s more important to have quality fat versus no fat.
- Red palm oil has more beta-carotene than tomatoes or carrots. Beta-carotene is an antioxidant that helps strengthen the body’s immune system. It’s also associated with a reduced risk of cancer, heart disease and cataracts.
- Palm oil is nature’s richest source of vitamin E tocotrienols. Studies show that the Vitamin E tocotrienols in palm oil support brain and liver health.
- Palm oil contains fewer inflammatory omega-6s than most other oils, such as canola, soybean and corn.
- In dog foods, palm oil is a high-quality source of energizing fat. In fact, Harvard researchers say palm oil’s fatty acid ratio is better than coconut oil. Other experts agree that palm oil may support an older dog’s cognitive health.
Is palm oil destroying rainforests?
The answer is yes and no. In some parts of the world, oil palm farming is destroying forests and animal habitats. This is sometimes referred to as ‘conflict palm oil’ because it’s in conflict with the planet and people.
In other parts of the world, it is actually used to preserve the environment. In fact, palm oil can be one of the best oils for a healthy planet but only if it is grown responsibly and sustainably. You’ll often see this referred to as ‘sustainable palm oil’ or ‘certified sustainable palm oil.’
Many people don’t realize that palm oil was also the first edible oil to be grown sustainably. This happened in Malaysia, where it has been responsibly produced for more than a century.
This means that you don’t have to avoid products made with palm oil. In fact, giving up palm oil could worsen the environmental impact caused by using alternative edible oils that require more land and natural resources. And it takes away support from corporations trying to improve the situation.
Here’s what you need to know about the sustainability of palm oil:
- Palm oil is by far the world’s most efficient oil-bearing crop.
- Oil palm trees have a 25-year lifespan. Because these plantations don’t need to be cleared and replanted annually, such as with corn, canola and soy crops, there is significantly less environmental impact.
- Palm plantations help prevent global warming. The entire country of Malaysia, where palm oil is the largest export, is a net carbon sink, thanks in great part to its oil palm plantations which absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere daily. In fact, Malaysia’s forest area is increasing by about 35,000 acres per year. More than 50% of the country is under forest cover. (The country is also a documented world leader in wildlife preservation including orangutan conservation.)
- Responsibly operated oil palm plantations require fewer fertilizers, pesticides and energy than other edible oil crops. Barn owls and snakes enable farmers to reduce farmers’ use of harmful chemical pesticides.
How can we tell the bad palm oil from the good palm oil?
Unlike other corn, canola and other edible oils, there are several programs in place to certify whether or not the palm oil in our products is sustainably sourced. The current palm oil industry certifications are: Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO); Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO); Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO); and Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO).
Of these, RSPO has an established global following. However, some people criticize RSPO because they feel the standards don’t do enough to protect pristine forest or palm oil laborers. The standards also don’t directly address climate protection.
Malaysia, which produces nearly half of the world’s RSPO-certified palm oil, developed its own mandatory, national certification program built upon RSPO’s foundation and to meet local needs and ensure its small family farmers are treated well.
The MSPO certification program is aimed at supporting Malaysia’s people, environment and wildlife. As of June 2021, more than 13 million acres of the country’s oil palm industry were MSPO-certified.
How to shop more sustainably
Do your research. The best way to support the use of certified sustainable palm oil, and discourage manufacturers from using conflict palm oil or other less earth-friendly oils, is to buy products made by manufacturers that have pledged on their websites to use only sustainable palm oil. Major corporations that have committed to using sustainably sourced palm oil include Nestle, Unilever, Kelloggs, Starbucks, Mars, Hersheys and Procter & Gamble.
Some of the individual products made with sustainable palm oil include:
- Smart Balance Buttery Spread Original
- Smart Balance Peanut Butter
- Balance Bar
- Clif Bar
- Enfamil Products
- Harmony Premium Trail Mix
- Harmony Yogurt Flavored Raisin Nut Mix
- Luna Bar
- Milk (various products may contain Vitamin A palmitate)
- Soy Milk (various brands)
- Power Bar
- South Beach Diet foods